Devil’s Run

Something about the oncoming joggers bothered Roy to give them a second look. His first thought was to ignore them as the usual joggers he saw every weekend. He noted several familiar faces in the crowd, then realized it was actually a crowd. The joggers he recognized didn’t normally run together, and there were a dozen others. Many of them weren’t even wearing athletic clothes. He saw jeans and business suits in the crowd; then, he noticed their faces.

Their eyes were wide and their mouths seemed stuck open. Roy came to stop and glanced behind him. The few regulars that were running behind him now ran the other way. He heard a growing commotion coming through his noise-cancelling earbuds and turned forward again.

The crowd was now about 30 feet away and he could hear them screaming over his music. He briefly wondered if they were running at him, but their eyes seemed focused on some vague location behind him.

Despite his fragile, boney appearance, Roy suspected he was literally the strongest man in the world. He never told anyone because he didn’t want to stand out in any way; but, his strength easily qualified him as a Super. He trusted his strength and stood his ground once the crowd reached him; he wanted to find out what scared them.

“What’s goin-,” he tried asking someone but they ran by ignoring him. The crowd didn’t even seem to know he was there, he was shoved from all sides as they mobbed past him. Each time someone pushed past him, a vague idea repeated itself in his mind.

RUN!” The thought became so insistent he shook his head several times to try and force it out of his mind.  Finally, the crowd moved past him, and he spotted a single figure lightly jogging his way.

It was a young woman that Roy didn’t recognize. She wore a flowing black gown that seemed to grow sheer as she jogged toward him. The thin, translucent fabric did little to hide her body from the bright sunlight. Her face was flushed with a bright pink color that wasn’t limited to her cheeks; Roy got the sense that it was her actual skin color. Her shoulder-length hair sparkled like polished gold.

She stopped once she reached Roy, and he looked into her eyes to keep his from wandering; her pupils were a translucent honey-gold color.

“Hello,” she grinned at him then slowly spun around with arms spread to bask in the sunshine. “It’s a beautiful day for a run!” She did a complete turn and faced him again with a slight pout. “Don’t you feel like running?” she asked. Roy assumed this is the woman they crowd was running from.

“What did you do them?” he asked, and he turned to point at the fleeing mob. He was startled to discover the entire crowd standing there behind. The stood in a half-circle behind him quiet and still like wax figures.

“I’ve been locked away alone for a very long time. Now that I’m free again, I wanted to stretch my legs and get some fresh air,” the woman said. “And, I hate going anywhere by myself.”

“Locked away?…” Roy began to think he’d found a supervillain that would force him into exposing his super strength. He wanted to know who he should return her to. “By who? Why?”

“Why?” She repeated his question, her golden eyes clouded with hurt. “I was a mistake. I’m sure you’ve hidden and ignored your fair share of mistakes,” she said. Roy nodded subconsciously. “You can imagine how much deeper and darker my hiding place was; a mistake made by someone…,” the woman pointed upward. “…that likes being known for not making any mistakes.”

GOD!?” Roy managed to sound sarcastic and surprised all at once. “You’re…,” he pointed an accusing finger at her, but suddenly had his doubts. “… are you Satan?” The woman’s eyes sparkled again. The silent crowd behind him burst into laughter.

“Ha!” she added. “That desk job is beneath me,” she delicately presented her hand to Roy. “I’m Unique Soul #02, El Diablito. You may call me, Diavola.”

“Uh. I don’t have a number, but 42 is my favorite one,” he reached for her hand out of habit. “I’m just Roy,” he touched her hand. 

Roy,” she gave a soft, almost romantic sigh, except he didn’t see her lips move. He somehow felt her voice caressing his mind; it felt like a nap on a cool rainy day. He knew that she wouldn’t mind if he took a peek and let his eyes roam down her body.

“Do me a favor?” she asked. Roy didn’t know if her lips moved or not, but it didn’t matter. He nodded.

“Of course, anything you want.”

“Run,” she whispered.

Roy ran.

Infinite Void

Flora never wondered about her ability much before that Sunday morning. It took her the better part of her 37 years to get the hang of it. Initially, she didn’t even consider it an ‘ability’. It was more of a vague sensation that she knew someone’s parents. Then, her Earth discovered alternate universes and the AlterNet.

Things changed almost overnight. Suddenly, fairies, orcs, mermaids, and more walked among them. Flora could see through their AlterNet characters; most of the fantasy creatures she saw were still human on the inside. The first time she met the descendant of a lizard person surprised her, but even then, she took it in stride without thinking about how her power worked. He was there from an alternate universe. As she met more strangers from other universes her ability changed and matured. She learned she could identify beings she’d never met before, simply because she’d met someone that had. Her ability eventually became a simple family tree floating above everyone’s head. By default, it showed an individual’s parents; but, with focus trace it back to the beginning of their lineage.

Every Sunday Flora ran a produce stall at the farmer’s market. Along with her ability to see someone’s heritage, she was blessed with a fantastic green thumb. She was stunned when she saw a giant woman with flaming red hair headed to look at her fruits. The woman was so tall that Flora needed to tilt her head up to see her family; but, the tree was incomplete.

The stranger’s father was a fairy, it would be the first time Flora met a fairy even though she recognized it. She knew she met someone that met fairies somewhere along the way. But there was only an empty space where the mother should have been. Flora wondered how a fairy got so big; once the woman reached her stall Flora realized she was at least eight feet tall.

“Whooa…,” the giant redhead picked up a cantaloupe and sniffed it, then grinned. It looked no bigger than a grapefruit in her large hand. “… nice melons,” the woman said as she picked up a second one and set them aside to buy them.

Flora was still puzzled by the woman’s missing parent and her size. She was distracted enough that her mind reacted on autopilot to the stranger’s comment.

“Thanks, you too,” Flora said. As soon as the words left her mouth, her brain decided to let her in on the joke. She clapped her hand over her mouth and turned beet red. The redhead threw her head back and let out a boisterous laugh. “Sorry! Sorry! I was thinking of something else!” Flora tried to apologize. The woman shook her head and smiled.

“No sweat, but I’m going to have to ask you what exactly you were thinking,” she winked at Flora.

“No no!” Flora shook her head frantically. “Nothing like that.” She realized honesty would give her the perfect opportunity to fill in the blank. “Uh, you probably won’t believe me, but I can see a person’s ancestry,…” she pointed above her own raven-colored hair. “…above their heads.”

“Oh,” she nodded. “I believe you, it’s a giant multi-verse out there, lots of weird things. So, what does mine say?” she asked.

“That’s the thing. You’re half-fairy, but I don’t know what the other half is. Something I’ve never met before, so I was kind of distracted. How are you so huge? You’re not half-giant, I’ve seen those before.” The woman smiled and reached out a large hand in greeting.  Flora shook it with both her hands.

“My name’s Flutter. I’m half-fairy and half…,” Flora felt the woman’s hand harden under her fingers. She watched as brilliant golden scales covered her entire body. “… dragon.” As she said it, the blank section filled in with the word Dragon.

“Wow!” Flora was genuinely impressed. “Thank you! That filled in the blank!”

“You know, that’s a pretty neat trick. Can you do me a favor? There’s someone I’ve always been curious about,” Flutter said. Flora nodded eagerly and released the hand as the scales retreated back under Flutter’s skin.

“Uh, she’s about this high,” Flutter brought her hand up to her own shoulder. “Pay attention because she won’t be here for long.” Flutter faced to her right as if she were having a conversation with someone in front of Flora’s stall.

“Can I get you here for a second, please?” She asked the empty space in front of her. It wasn’t empty for long; a tall, dark-haired woman with bone-white horns materialized from nowhere. The new woman sighed with deep annoyance, then turned to look at Flora.

“This better be long enough,” she said, then promptly disappeared again. The couple of seconds she was there was enough to make Flora wonder how much she didn’t understand about her ability. Even after the woman disappeared, Flora stared at the empty air where her ancestry was, slack-jawed and wide-eyed.

“Well,.. what’d you see?” Flutter asked. Flora slowly shook her head trying to understand what it meant.

“I.. I don’t…,” Flora stumbled over her words until she closed her eyes to try and calm down. She opened them again to see worry all over Flutter’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Flutter said. “I knew it wouldn’t be normal.. but-” Flora interrupted.

“Infinity,” she said.

“What?”

“No mother, no father,” Flora said, she used her finger to gesture an ‘infinity’ symbol in the air. “Just… infinity.

Super, Glorious, Love

“Gloria Rose,” the mid-20s woman answered the clerk behind the tempered glass. The heavyset clerk in loose pink scrubs nodded and typed the name into his computer. Gloria heard the security gate open and turned to find a pair of officers coming through the narrow hall toward her. Gloria tried not to use her abilities on everyone; she had no interest in what the clerk’s life was like. However, she didn’t need her powers to notice the officers seemed extremely uneasy. Curiosity got the better of her and she gave them a quick scan as they walked past behind her.

She suddenly felt thousands of creepy things crawling on the back of her neck and down her spine. Despite trying to be prepared for anything, the feeling was so intense from both of them that she gave a violent shiver at the sensation. Luckily the clerk was still staring at his monitor, and the officers were in a hurry to leave. No one saw her flail her arms as the crawling sensation washed over her.

Gloria rarely felt sensations that strong. The mental scars she feels are strongest the moment they’re created before the victim has time to process them. Whatever scarred the officers permanently happened within the last hour at most.

“Interesting day so far?” Gloria asked the clerk when he finally turned around to give her an I.D. tag. He nodded then leaned closer to the speaker grill in the glass.

“If I were you, I’d pick a different day to volunteer,” he tilted his balding head in the direction of the policemen. “That’s the second pair, first guys that came in ran away screaming. Literally,” he chuckled.

“What happened?” Gloria asked. The clerk shrugged.

“I don’t ask, and I’m not important enough to be in the loop. But whatever it is, it got the attention of some corporate bigshot named Dana Sharp.”

“Who’s that?” she asked. The clerk shook his head and smiled.

“No idea. I’d never heard of her but apparently she bought this place,” he spread his arms to gesture at the asylum as a whole. “We got the word an hour ago, and she just came in about 10 minutes before you.”

“Is she still here?” Gloria perked up. She’d never heard of the woman, but she was very curious about what happened and what kind of person can buy an asylum with ease.

“You’re going in aren’t you?” the clerk gave her an amused grin. She nodded eagerly, her light green curls bounced with the motion. “She’s easy to spot; look for the beautiful woman in a white suit. Good luck.”

Gloria nodded with a smile and took the I.D. badge. As she walked through the narrow corridor to the security gate, two people appeared at the other end behind it. A short, pale woman in a black suit walked out of the gate next to an equally short, mousey man with neat dark hair and glasses.

“Everything’ll be fine Mr. Ragno,” Gloria heard the woman say before she scanned either of them. She did not intend to, but because of her powers, she always knows when someone is lying. Lies leave their own kind of mental scar. She definitely lied to him, and was used to lying; Gloria wanted to know why. She also realized it would be a bad idea to scan both of them at the same time. She wanted to avoid flailing around again, if possible. Gloria slowed her steps and focused on the woman as she passed.

Gloria was ready for more creepy crawling on her neck. She was ready for any manner of unforgettable tortures and atrocities she had helped others through. She was not ready to feel the warm embrace of pure love to wrap itself around her mind. The feeling grew warmer as Gloria dug deeper and found worse and worse mental scars.

Gloria had seen something similar dozens of times. She often encouraged the use of love to help recover from traumas, but this felt different. In the brief moments they took to pass each other, Gloria got the sense that the woman didn’t use love to heal herself. She endured horrors that Gloria could not fathom because of love.

She sensed hundreds, maybe thousands of troubles that would have broken anyone else. She wore her love like a suit of armor that was defense as much as it was a container to hold her pieces together. It was so pure, faithful, and dutiful that Gloria felt twinges of jealousy as the pair walked out of her range. She didn’t learn any more about the lie other than the woman lied for love. Gloria shook her head as she walked through the security gate.

“I’d kill for someone to love me like that,” she mumbled under her breath. She had been so distracted that she didn’t see Dana Sharp until she bumped into the tall, pale woman.

“Sorry!” Gloria immediately apologized, then she noticed the woman’s crisp white suit. Ms. Sharp looked at Gloria and gave her a polite smile.

“That’s quite alright,” she said. “And, believe me,” she winked “I’m very lucky to be married to her.”

“Oh, so you’re the one that made her eyes sparkle like that,” Gloria tried to cover for what Ms. Sharp heard. “They were filled with love.” She enjoyed the warm, loving sensation enough to want to experience it again; and here was the other half of the couple. Gloria eagerly dived into the woman’s psyche.

She was not embraced with warm love. She was not embraced by anything. No love, no mental traumas, no happy memories. Nothing.

When Gloria first discovered her abilities she tested it on various animals and inanimate objects. One time she happened to be focusing on a cat that was hit by a car. She suffered through the trauma with the cat so that it wouldn’t die alone, and she felt the moment its soul left its body. Once the soul was gone, the cat’s corpse became a blank, empty shell.

Exactly like Dana Sharp.

O.C.Demon

“GET OUuuuuT!” A male voice wailed as Jasper set his first box down. He’d visited the house on several occasions during the purchase process; each visit left him feeling vaguely uneasy. It seemed the house decided Jasper bringing in his first set of belongings was too much of an intrusion. The mid-30s man chuckled to himself and tried to project a smile at the empty living room.

“It’s nice to have someone else to talk to for once. What’s your name?” he asked the house.

“LEEEEEEAAAVVVVE!” the voice wailed again. A viscous bright red liquid began seeping out of the off-white walls.

“No! No no, shhhhh, don’t do that!” Jasper frantically waved his hands at the wall to try and convince it to take back what the coppery stench told him was blood.

“What the Hell is going on here?” Jasper sighed as he heard Laina’s familiar voice behind him. He turned to find his lifelong tormentor walking in the door carrying another box. A red-skinned, black-horned woman in a black suit.  “We just started unloading and you’re already taking a break? If we take too long doing this I won’t be able to cook your favorite dinner; we have to celebrate our first night in a new house properly.” She dropped the box to the muffled sound of shattering glass. She immediately balled her fists and shut her eyes to try and calm down.

WHY was there glass in a box labeled ‘bedroom’?” She asked through gritted teeth. Jasper shrugged.

“Lamps, picture frames, I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you mark it fragile?!”

“You kicked me out of the bedroom and sent me to pack the garage because you said I was doing it wrong.”

“Obviously I was right because you didn’t label it as fragile!” Laina growled under her breath.

“GOOOO AWAAAAYYYY!” the house repeated.

“What the Hell was that?” Laina asked. Jasper shrugged again and pointed at the bloody walls that she hadn’t noticed yet.

“I wasn’t taking a break, it looks like this house is haunted.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. Listen up Mr. ghost or ghosts. This house is ours now. You’ll either start following the rules or I’ll exorcise you so fast you won’t know what hit you. Rule #1, I don’t want any poltergeisty stuff between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Jasper needs exactly eight hours of sleep, plus two to wind down and two to get ready for the day.” Laina paused. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot waiting to hear some sort of snarky reply, but none came.

“Rule #2, Food isn’t free. I’ve perfected the absolute healthiest diet for Jasper and it’s expensive to maintain. I will not have your antics wasting all my gluten-free and vegan foods. Obviously you’re able to make your own messes without disturbing our pantry,” she pointed at the bloodied walls.

“Which brings me to rule #3. You make a mess, you clean it. I have a hard enough time cleaning up after this man-child, I will not clean up after you too. You’re welcome to live here, but as a ghost, your job is to not be seen, is that clear?” Laina glared at the wall and the blood began to fade from existence leaving it brand new again.

“Rule #4. No peeking on the second Friday of the month between 6:30 and 7:00 p.-,” she was interrupted by Jasper.

“I think he gets the point for now. It’s getting late, remember? Let’s finish unloading so you can make that delicious soy-loaf,” he rubbed his belly. “You can give him the rest of the rules over dinner.”

“See? You can think sometimes, good boy,” Laina patted his head and walked out the door. “You’d better be right behind me,” she said. Jasper sighed. And started to follow her out.

“I should have been more specific when I made a deal for a girlfriend for the rest of my life,” he shook his head. He heard the voice one more time as he crossed the threshold.

“If you need a buddy to talk to, my name is Homer.”

Hellish Birthday

The sharp scent of too much fresh peppermint woke Jared. He sat up in a panic; his last memory was struggling against his friends. He thought Mundo and Eric were his friends up until the moment they stabbed his heart with an obsidian dagger. As he took his last breaths, Jared felt them using the blade on his arm. He hurriedly turned his arm to check and found a number two scarred over.

“What the hell?”  he asked as he checked his surroundings. Jared sat on a soft mound in an emerald field of peppermint plants under a red sky.

“Correct on the first try!” a man said behind him. Jared hopped to his feet and whirled around in one motion to see who was behind him. It was a tall man with perfectly parted white hair and a well-groomed white beard. He wore a green suit that blended in well with the peppermint field, with a white vest and white bow tie. The number 37 was tattooed on his right cheek under a rotating glass eye painted like a globe.

“This is Hell?” Jared asked. “Are you the devil? I thought you’d be more…,” he gestured with his hands over his head alluding to horns. “…devilish.”

“Indeed he is. I am not him. My name is Peppermint and I am able to function as his representation. That being said, how exactly did you get here?”

“I chose my friends poorly,” Jared sighed.

“Well, that’s hardly enough to get you here,” the man smiled. “Let’s try to be more specific, what are your last memories?”

“My so-called buddies sacrificed me.” he turned enough to show the stranger the number two on his arm. “I don’t even think I’m the first guy they did it to, and they must have thought it was hilarious to do it on my birthday.”

“They gave you that as part of the sacrifice?” Peppermint asked with sudden interest.

“Yeah,” Jared nodded.

“Before or after?”

“What does it matter? I’m in hell while they’re getting their laughs,” Jared looked around. It surprised him that Hell was so pleasant. There was actually a cool breeze blowing across his skin. His nose got used to the peppermint smell enough that he was thankful it wasn’t brimstone and sulfur.

“It’s quite important. Did they scar you with the number before or after they killed you? And for that matter, was one of your friends named Eric?”

“I wasn’t dead yet I guess, but they definitely stabbed me first. And yeah,” Jared nodded. “How’d you know about Eric?” Peppermint smiled but shook his head.

“I wish that boy would stop abusing his knowledge,” he said under his breath. “Anyway, that explains everything. Congratulations, you’re on our team.”

“What do you mean? I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m working for Hell now? I don’t want that!” Jared whined.

Working for is a bit strong. As I said, you’re on our team. You’ll be going back to Earth to live your life as you see fit. We don’t tell you what to do, but all your actions are considered to be performed by a member of Hell. Before you return,  I need to explain your powers to you.”

“I get to go back?!” Jared grinned. “With powers? Yes!” Jared took a moment to pop his knuckles. “I can’t wait to teach those ex-friends of mine a lesson. Can I shoot fireballs at them?” Peppermint shook his head.

“You are Unique Soul #02, El Diablito. You can infect people with a microbe just by touching their bare skin. Anyone else they touch also becomes infected. The microbe gives you control of their minds. You cannot innately throw fireballs, but El Diablito does have a certain affinity for magic. If you’re not in a hurry to get back, I can arrange a magic tutor for you.”

“Yeah!” Jared growled. “Give me all the magic you can, my revenge is going to hurt.”

“Revenge? For what?” Peppermint asked.

“They KILLED me on my BIRTHDAY!”

“It seems to me that they did you a favor. You’re going back to Earth any time you want. You’ve got powers now, and you’re going to learn magic. Don’t you think that brief stabbing pain in your chest is worth the powers you’ve been given?”

“Bullcrap, they didn’t know what was going to happen. They’re just a bunch of crazy Satanists; I’m the one that lucked out. They wanted to send me to burn in Hell forever, I can’t forgive that.”

“Don’t let Eric hear you say that, he’s surprisingly sentimental. You’ll hurt his feelings. Sometimes people do favors for us without us realizing it.”

“So, what? They did know?” Peppermint nodded.”No matter how long you stay here to master your magic, you’ll never be able to…,” Peppermint added air quotes. “…teach Eric a lesson. That boy is the literal son of the Devil. He knew exactly what he was doing and what would happen. Knowing him, he probably meant it as a birthday gift.”

Moon. Light.

“What?” Faldwell tilted his head at the electronic device. “Am I speaking to the Sky Spirit?”

“Sky spirit? What the hell is going on down there, we haven’t heard from Earth in weeks.” Faldwell sighed and turned to face his band of  fur wearing, face painted, dirty followers.

“Hold on, guys. I think the quest is bugged, he chuckled nervously. “You know how new servers are,” he gestured at the air to produce his slate. Everyone else saw it as a smokey glass pane, though he clearly saw text with access to all his menus on it. He navigated to the support menu and requested a mod. Moments later a black hole opened next to him and a young man with a bush of dark brown curls on his head walked out.

“Mod Aurelio,” he pointed at his nametag. “What’s the problem?” he asked as he approached Faldwell.

“Hello? Earth? This is Moon City Delta, are you there?” Faldwell gestured at the primitive tech that illustrated their trouble. “We’ve got hundreds of families up here worried about you all.”

“Quest is bugged,” he added clarification.

“Oh. Hold on this needs to be escalated,” Aurelio brought up his own slate.

“Should I talk to them?” Faldwell asked. Aurelio shook his head as he typed on the glass. Seconds after he stopped typing another black hole opened. A short, plump, pale woman in a black suit walked out.

“Hey Melody, we’ve got a problem. Moon full of Zeros,” he pointed at the radio in time to hear them try again.

“This is Moon City Delta, do you read us Earth?” Melody glanced at the radio, then at the small crowd gathered around them, then at Faldwell. He was dressed in furs and grime like them, though he also wore an elaborate headdress made from a lion’s skull and a mane made of colorful feathers.

“Guild leader?” she asked. Faldwell nodded.

“The Sky Spirit’s blessing is the last thing we needed to earn our guild hall,” he said.

“Sharp Development apologizes for the inconvenience. Please accept this server…,” she gave Faldwell a card-sized piece of glass, then pointed at a fresh portal that opened next to him. “… for bringing this bug to our attention, and as an apology for troubling your gameplay experience.” His eyes went wide.

“A server!? A WHOLE server just for us?” Melody nodded.

“If you need any help setting it up, you’ll be able to contact Aurelio directly,” she smiled.

“Thanks! C’mon guys!” Faldwell immediately rushed through the portal followed by his role-playing cult.

“Uh… Earth,” the radio spoke again once the guild left. “The great Sky Spirit commands you to speak to us. Where are you?”

“Warn them about the cataclysm,” Melody said as she looked up into the sky for the moon. The palms of her hands started glowing with bright blue light.

“On it,” Aurelio replied; his fingers danced on the glass slate.

[Server Notice: Cataclysmic Event! The moon is shattered. Server template is updated from Apocalyptic to Catastrophic. Environmental safety programs have been disabled. Permadeath is enabled. Please relocate to a standard server if you wish to remain safe. Sharp Development takes no responsibility for players that remain on this server.]

“Done,” Aurelio said. Melody nodded and pointed her glowing hands at the moon. Streaks of bright blue plasma launched out of her hands at it.

Petty Hunter

“What do you mean, ‘he’s my problem now’?” Cliff asked. He glared at the young woman behind the bar. She owned the run down saloon and Cliff was already anxious to get out of there before customers started filing in. She shook her head and returned the glare.

“I just wanted to see if this no good, lying, worthless piece of cow dung was alive with my own two eyes.” The bound and gagged man trembled on his barstool with every insult. “Now that I know he didn’t die on me and his son I can move on with my life. I sure as hell don’t want him back. You can toss him in the trash out back or go and put him back where you found him for all I care.”

“Listen lady,” Cliff leaned over the bar. “I don’t take on any problems without a fee. You paid me to bring him here, I brought him here. You want to make him my problem, you pay me for that too. Otherwise, I’m walking out of here without any problems.”

“How much more?” she narrowed her eyes.

“Well, that all depends on what I can do with him.”

“I don’t care what you do with him,” she replied sternly. Cliff reached to his belt and unsheathed his hunting knife.

“You .. sure you don’t care what I do?” he asked as he absent-mindedly scratched at his neck stubble with the sharp edge. The woman thought for a minute. She swallowed hard, but nodded.

“I don’t care,” she said with a cold edge in her voice.

“Then it’ll be cheap, 20 more gold pieces.”

“That’s it?” she brightened immediately and pulled the coins out of her apron. Compared to the 200 she paid initially, 10 was a steal. She placed them on the counter. “There, now we’re square. Get him out of here and do whatever you’re going to do. And make it hurt if you can,” she added.

Cliff nodded and moved the knife away from his neck; he stepped closer to the prisoner.

“Problem solved,” he said as he slid the knife downward behind the man and cut him loose. The first thing he did was reach up and pull the gag out of his mouth.

“Thank you,” he said.

“What’s going on?” the owner asked. “I thought you were going to kill him!”

“What?” Cliff laughed as he grabbed the coins off the bar. “Hell no, murder’s expensive.”

“So what the hell did I just pay you for? If I wanted him free I could have done that myself.”

“You could’ve, but you didn’t. You paid for the convenience of having me deal with a problem you were trying to avoid. Next time, try being more specific with what you want.” He turned and patted the former prisoner on the back.

“No hard feelings, I was doing my job.” He handed him the 10 gold pieces. “Get yourself a drink, on me.” He smiled at the bartender, then walked out.

Sharp Bank

“Mr. Samuel Bowman?” Sam opened his front door to find a pair of men in white mechanic’s jumpsuits on his porch. As soon as he opened the door they asked his identity. He nodded, mostly out of curiosity, and caught sight of their name patches. The one that asked his name was Lenny; the other one Mike. They also sported a bright red scissor logo that looked vaguely familiar.

“That’s me,” Sam said. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“Did you take out a loan at Sharp Bank six months ago?” Lenny asked. The moment he mentioned the bank, Sam recognized their red logo. It was all over the paperwork he filled out.

“Great, thanks,” Lenny said. He smiled broadly, and Sam saw Mike move in his peripheral vision; he turned just in time to see Mike’s fist flying at him.

“What the hell?” Sam grumbled as he woke up. His head throbbed with pain, but he managed to look around and see he was on his couch in his living room; and, he wasn’t alone. A young red-headed woman in a white dress sat on his easy chair across the coffee table from him.

“Hello Mr. Bowman,” she said.

“What’s going on? What are you doing in my house?”

“Repossession, Mr. Bowman. Not only have you missed your loan payments six months in a row, they also happened to be the first six months of your loan. Sharp Bank has no choice but to assume you have no intention of making your payments.”

“Repossession? Wait a minute… my soul?!” Sam burst into laughter. “You can’t take my soul, I’m still using it!”

“The forms you signed say otherwise,” the woman said.

“No, no way.” Sam sat up straighter and tried to assess the situation. He didn’t see Lenny and Mike anywhere, but they could be outside waiting. He couldn’t just try to run away from her; but, if things got violent he could use her as a hostage. “It was a joke. I wasn’t serious, I didn’t think I’d get the loan.”

“Oh, of course. Well, if it was a joke, I’m sure you’re planning to give back the money. If you just give it to me, I’ll tear up your loan contract and we’ll call it even.”

“I.. I don’t have it,” Sam admitted. “But you can’t take my soul, it’ll kill me! That kind of technology doesn’t even exist!  I was kidding! I’ll start making payments!”

“Mr. Bowman, I’d like to give you some advice. Going forward, it would be in your best interest not to assume the limits of others. Only offer things you’re willing to lose, no matter how unlikely it may seem.” Sam felt relief wash over him. ‘Going forward’ meant alive, and alive meant his soul would remain intact; it sounded like she was giving him a second chance.

“Just because you’re not aware of something existing does not mean it doesn’t exist,” she stood up, and Sam stood with her. It felt like the meeting was over and a part of him wondered if the technology actually existed. Maybe they were just trying to strongarm him into a payment.

“Yes, thank you. I appreciate it so much. I’ll make a payment next month as soon as I can,” he said. The woman tilted her head in confusion.

“Why?” she asked.

“For the loan, so you won’t take my soul. I thought you were giving me another chance,” Sam said. The redhead grinned.

“Why would you think that?” she asked.

“You gave me advice for ‘going forward’,” he said. All his hopes were instantly crushed. “There isn’t much ‘forward’ if I’m dead after you take my soul.” The woman giggled lightly.

“It’s amazing how much you didn’t listen to my advice,” she said. “Not only does the technology to extract souls exist, but we can also do it without killing you.”

“You.. you can do really do that?” Sam asked. The woman nodded.

“Well, do you think you’re dead?” she asked.

“Of course not, I’m here talking to you aren’t I?” he asked, then he saw her raise a single orange-red eyebrow in response. His hands flew to his chest and he started patting himself down as if looking for his wallet. “You took it already?!”

“Of course. It’s property of Sharp Bank now, after all.”

“That’s it?!” Sam didn’t feel any different than before Mike punched him out. If the procedure was already done and he was still standing, he started to feel hope again. If the loan was already paid for, it was one less thing to worry about. “Wow… So I don’t have to worry about my body falling apart without a soul or anything like that?”

“Your soul belongs to us, but your body is another matter. The most humane way to satisfy all parties involved is to give you a new life and a new body. I’m sure you still have questions, but unfortunately, I have other appointments to keep. However, the mannequin will answer any questions you have.”

“Mannequin? What mannequin?”

“This one,” she said. The moment she spoke her pale skin darkened. Her features blurred and in the blink of an eye, a black faceless mannequin stood in her place. It floated off the ground and looked at Sam.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!”

Sharptopia

We look like cattle,” Erica thought grimly. She was one of dozens; men and women packed shoulder to shoulder in a shipping container. A single dim light on the ceiling illuminated the other’s faces just enough to show off the dirt and grime. Their clothes were little more than rags but somehow, they all seemed excited, maybe even happy.

Erica knew most of the smiling faces; they were all from her shantytown. When a well-dressed stranger promised them a new life on another Earth, she was suspicious. When he said it was free, she begged her friends not to trust him. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, or maybe they were more like her than she thought.

She had no reason to stay on their Earth oppressed and poor. At first, Erica thought it was a trap for the government to kill them all easier. Once the stranger proved the existence of alternate universes, she still assumed he was up to no good. Either way, she expected to die. But she would rather die among friendly faces than alone. She wondered if that’s why they all agreed as a group, and pressured her to join them. Spite was the only thing she had left to live for; she was looking forward to uttering, ‘I told you so,” with her last breath.

Minutes after the container closed, it opened again. Erica didn’t feel it move but it opened to a brilliant, shiny new world. The gritty, smokey air of barrel fires was replaced by sparkling white floors. Giant windows looked out over a bustling, prosperous metropolis. A security guard in a white uniform waved them out of the container.

As Erica stepped out of it into the light she looked around. They seemed to be in a warehouse of sorts. She noticed dozens of other shipping containers also unloading their dirty contents. Ragged strangers grouped around white uniforms; the guard that tended to Erica’s group spoke up to call their attention.

“Welcome to Earth One,” the guard said with a smile. “We have some information to go through. But, after doing this for a while, we’ve learned what you want right now more than information is a chance to catch your breath.” The guard held his hand up and a small rectangle of glass caught the light just enough to announce its presence.

“This is a node and it’ll be your new best friend. I’m going to get some information from each of you, then hand you one of these. As long as you have a node you have access to living quarters, food, clothing, and entertainment. Get yourselves cleaned up, fed and rested. In a couple of days, we’ll have an orientation to help you decide what you want to do for the rest of your life.” Erica raised her hand as the guard stepped to the nearest person.

“I’m sure all of you have a lot of questions. They’ll probably be answered while you get yourselves situated. Those that aren’t will be answered during orientation. I’ll answer your question, miss,” he said. “But no more please,” he gestured at the other groups around them. “As you can see, we have a lot of work ahead of us.  What’s your question?”

“What makes this ‘Earth One’?” Erica asked. “How many are there?”

“That’s the perfect example of a question that could have waited until orientation,” the guard said with a flat, customer service smile. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Erica Ellis,” she replied.

“This is Earth One for the same reason you are Erica Ellis. It’s just a name to differentiate it from other Earths. The Earth you came from is known as Dystopia 101. There’s one Earth out there named Pineapple,” he chuckled; the rest of Erica’s group laughed with him. “As for how many other Earths there are, no one knows for sure. The word ‘infinite’ is used quite often.” The guard walked to Erica.

“Since you volunteered to go first, let’s get you out of the way.  I already have your name, so one more question. What’s your favorite number?”

“33,” Erica said. “That’s it? Just my name and favorite number?” As she asked, she noticed the guard waving at another guard; the second guard dashed over quickly.

“That’s it,” the guard said. He handed her a node. “This will help you find anything you need. Welcome to your new life.”

Zero Enlightenment

General Bob Williamson woke with an uneasy start. Decades of military training tickled the back of his neck; something was wrong.

“Thank god I don’t have to listen to your snoring anymore,” a man said. Bob whirled around in time to see the lamp next to his reading chair turn on. The stranger was a younger man compared to Bob’s 67 years. He looked a lot like Bob did, in his late 40s.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Bob asked as he slowly turned in the bed to face the familiar stranger. He slipped his right hand under his pillow to reach for his gun, but it wasn’t there.

“I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want to be hurt,” the younger man nodded at Bob’s desk against the far wall. Bob saw a faint gleam in the dim light and recognized his gun. “I want to talk to you about the Galaxy Shot project,” he said. Bob’s eyes went wide.

“How do you know about that?”

“I’m sure you learn all you could if someone rained death on your Earth from across the void,” the stranger said.

“Earth, the planet?” Bob was surprised, and not completely awake yet. “Did your planet get hit? Are you an…,” he dropped his voice to a whisper. “…alien?” The stranger laughed and shook his head.

“Do I look like an alien?” he asked while still laughing. “Easiest case ever,” he added under his breath. Bob shrugged.

“You look like a younger me. An alien would be able to disguise themselves using my memories.” Bob’s suggestion only made the stranger laugh harder. “What do you mean, ‘easiest case ever’?”

“You’re in charge of the project that attacked my, EARTH,” he stressed the word. “I was sent to your Earth to find out why you attacked us; it turns out you’re just idiots. Case closed.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Bob was confused, but he felt the need to defend the honor of everyone that worked on the project with him. “We’re not idiots.” After that, he realized the stranger said he came from Earth. “There’s another Earth past Jupiter?” he asked. This prompted even more laughter.

“Aliens don’t exist,” he said. “Jupiter doesn’t exist. The only thing out there is the void that separates alternate universes.”

“Of course Jupiter exists! We have pictures!”

“On most of the Earths I’ve been to there’s a genre of movies called ‘Heist films’. One of the most common tropes they use is feeding a false signal of whatever is being monitored to whoever is watching. You know, instead of showing an empty space, it shows that there’s something there.”

“So it’s all fake?” Bob laughed and shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”

“Not all of it. The sun, moon and stars are real. But there are no other planets. No aliens, just more humans.”

“So.. you’re me from an alternate universe then?” Bob asked. His younger self nodded.

“I’m your Zero,” he said as he stood from the chair. He walked closer to the bed and extended a hand to Bob. “You’re my Zero.” Bob shook his hand, then the younger man stepped back.

“So.. what happens now? I mean… an alternate universe is big. Does your president want to meet our president? What kind of knowledge are we going to exchange?” The younger him smiled and reached into his pocket.

“No chance. We wouldn’t learn anything from, and aside from that; you attacked us, remember?”

“It was an accident! We didn’t know you were there, you know that now.” The younger man nodded.

“It was an accident. It doesn’t mean we’re friends, it just means we aren’t going to conquer your Earth and kill all of you.” He pulled his hand out of his pocket; Bob saw him holding a pitch-black business card. “Bye now,” he said and threw the card at the ground. A black hole opened beneath him. He fell in and disappeared, then the hole closed.